Under the influence; remaining objective when emotions run high at planning committee

Guest Blog: Councillor Bill Stevens, Chair of Planning Committee, Plymouth.
I have recently been working with numerous councils helping them look at how public speaking is managed – how long to give each speaker? what order should they go in? how to keep them to time? etc. Most recently I was asked about how committee members, particularly the new or less experienced, can listen to the cut, thrust and emotion of public speakers, and remain objective and stick to matters of planning when making a decision.

As is the PAS way, I asked someone that knows about these things – Councillor Bill Stevens, Chair of Planning Committee, Plymouth. Here’s what he told me.

‘Conflicting loyalties’
As a preface to all of this we must remind ourselves of the sometimes conflicting local and political loyalties. Whilst everyone understands the political context of councillors judging planning applications, they must do the right thing and treat the process according to local and national policy etc. however hard that can be. The best Planning Committee Members/Chairs are those that have that in mind but see the wider picture and make policy-based decisions that benefit the community as a whole.

Emotions run high
The temptation for Councillors to get carried away with or emotionally ‘falling’ for what public speakers say is a very real one, especially on householder applications which deal with how individuals and families are supposedly affected day to day. The aim should be for us to get Committee Members to understand how to put comments like this in perspective. How we do that is the key!

Firstly, the thing to hammer home is that public speakers are biased. That’s not the same thing as saying that what they say is untrue though. People for and against planning applications will say what they want us to hear and it’s absolutely essential to remember we are not hearing from neutral, dispassionate people. Forgetting this is disastrous.

Secondly, our job is to consider planning applications against the local plan(s) and national statutes. If public speakers give genuine planning reasons to overturn recommendations, then fine, but that (and that alone) is what you’re looking for. We shouldn’t be afraid of going against what public speakers want.

When perspective is lost… how to approach this
I think officers, with or without committee member’s involvement, need to express concerns to the Chair(s) or possibly the Council leader if they feel that the committee is going against officer’s recommendations without strong justification/planning reasons. This is a political problem and requires political solutions. The Leader needs to be clear in their mind what they require from the Chairs and Committee members, every bit as much as they would have expectation of all other appointments.

Next, we need to ask ourselves if our Ward Councillors are working with objectors during the process from start to finish? If the first involvement objectors have is at the Planning Committee meeting, the system is failing. Ward Councillors need to be in touch with objectors throughout, liaising with the Case Officer and advising locals what may or not be achievable. It’s also good practice for Ward Councillors to liaise with the Chair (or Lead Opposition Councillor) to ensure their advice is sound. Keeping these walls up is always unhelpful.

If you are tempted….
Committee members should consider, if they’re tempted to agree with objectors, what the context is. Have they been working with Councillors? Have they met with Planning Officers? If not, why not? What advice and input comes from Planning Officers at Committee meetings? There are occasions when Councillors feel bullied or patronised into supporting officer recommendations so react against them. If that’s happening in your place, then officers will have to have a hard look at their approach.

And finally… the role of the Chair
A good Chair will appreciate their conflicting roles of championing Committee members, defending Officers’ political independence and allowing the public to feel they have a stake in the process. If Officers feel this is out of balance, they need to have fostered a strong enough relationship with the Chair to raise this.

Some really good advice here from Bill. Many councils will have new committee members just starting out and this is just the sort of advice that can help them in those early days. Please share your thoughts and ideas on this topic here.

PAS thanks Councillor Bill Stevens


Timing is Everything; Quality Designation Measure

“For quality of decision-making, your performance is being assessed ‘now’ based on data that is well over a year old.”

I have had several goes at explaining the Quality measure and how it works, but I’m still to be convinced that everyone understands it and how it works, and right now feels like another good time to raise the subject again. I’ve also (see the foot of this blog) created a ‘Quick Guide’ to the Quality designation measure).

Sometime in June 2019 MHCLG will publish the latest performance data for its ‘Quality’ performance indicator (Live Table 152). This set of data will be used to assess which councils are in danger of being designated under the government’s performance regime.

Think about the timetable; in June 2019, councils will be considered for potential designation for the appeals upheld against decisions made on applications in the period April 2016 – March 2018. That’s a full 15 months on.

The calculation behind the quality assessment is convoluted to say the least – there are 2 periods at play; a 24 month period of decisions made on applications, and an additional 9  month period to allow appeals to go through the system. So it was not until December 2018 that all of the appeal numbers at play were known. Add into the mix another 6 month period for all of that data to make its way from PINS to MHCLG and you end up with the June 2019 decision time.

And in the meantime the next designation period for decisions made has started and finished (!) April 2017 – March 2019. So, if you are not careful with monitoring your performnace, it always feeld like your performance is being assessed ‘now’ based on data that is well over a year old (which is why it’s so important to keep ahead of what is happening by using the PAS ‘crystal ball’ available in the KnowledgeHub).

I have given up trying to explain what the ‘current’ designation period is (until June there are arguably 2 at play), but with the help of some PAS friends, I have created a ‘Designation Quick Guide’ to the quality measure – it helps explain how the measure is calculated and what is included and when:




Have fun with it and let me know if it’s helpful/can be improved?

Performance Statistics, Designation & PAS Crystal Ball(s) 2018

Latest performance statistics are out (20/09/2018)
The latest stats were published yesterday MHCLG. Only one more quarter to go, and that is almost over (to end of September).

PAS Support (1) – get ahead of the game – avoiding designation
PAS’ job on Designation is to help councils with how to recognise, measure and most importantly how to avoid it (I wrote a blog last year on that very matter – it’s still relevant just move the dates referred to on one year).

I’ve updated the PAS ‘Crystal Balls’; one for speed, one for quality. They let you measure performance in as close to real time as you care to feed them your most up to date performance data. I’d encourage ALL councils to use the crystal balls as part of their performance management framework – don’t get caught out – poor performance often ‘creeps up’ and over a 2 year reporting period just a couple of poor quarters can really drag overall performance down leaving little time to recover.

PAS Support (2) – get ahead of the game – how best to respond if you’re in danger
If you are a head of planning I will most likely have written to you earlier this year if I had concerns about your performance, offering a menu of support including FREE help to:

• re-check your PS1/2 data submissions (you’ll not be surprised to learn that most I check have errors)
• review DM process efficiency if you are failing on the Speed measure
• review committee operation and decision making if you are failing on the Quality measure.

The 2 year reporting period means new councils can appear on my radar each time the government publishes the latest statistics – so keep an eye on your inbox in the next week.

Quality of decisions assessment – warrants a special mention
The Quality measure is still fairly new and it has a number of confusing elements to how it functions and the assessment period it uses (which is not the same as the speed measures). Lots of us are still not 100% clear on how it operates – you’re not alone – have a look at a blog I did attempting to explain the quality measure here and how one council I was impressed with tries to stay ahead of things here.

Have a look at/use the Crystal Balls and let me know how you get on/what you think.


Quality/Designation Measure (2) – South Somerset ‘get’ it

Less than a fortnight ago I began working with Marc Dorfman, Special Planning Advisor, at South Somerset District Council (SSDC),  helping him get underneath the government’s quality designation measure.  SSDC have reacted at lightening pace to improve performance; they have quickly tweaked procedures and set up a measuring and monitoring system – it’s worth sharing as a good example of how to get members and officers pulling together on what is difficult subject. Marc said:

“The MHCLG Indicator on “Major Appeals Quality” is having an impact. The 10% “poor performer designation threshold” is very low. With many authorities receiving and deciding some 50-150 majors over two years, only 15 lost major appeals over two years would put the LPA into the designation zone.

Understanding the measure is not straightforward

South Somerset over the first designation period 2015-17 came out at 9.3% just below the designation level, when the national average was 2.5%. SSDC recognised they needed to do something. Supported by PAS on “short cut calculations” and on detailed advice on how to calculate the 2016-18 and 2017-19 designation periods (there’s a 2 year assessment period and a ‘9 month time lag’ (see my last blog) to get your heads around), SSDC decided to put in place an action plan:

SSDC Action Plan

1. monthly monitoring and using the PAS Designation Quality ‘Crystal Ball’ toolkit 

2. workshops with all councillors and planning committee members to look at the detail statistics, at key decisions and a review and reminder session for councillors about their own code of practice for planning

3. A new procedural step – Area Planning Committees cannot refuse major applications, they can only make recommendation to a Strategic Cttee, to allow a “time – out” for further negotiation and consideration.

SSDC are getting officers and members to work together to address the “slight increase” in major appeals allowed. “Slight”, because it only takes a few extra losses over 2 years for designation to be threatened.

Going forward, SSDC say they would like the threshold increased; the LPA is working hard to deliver its annual 5 year land supply target, (currently delivering 600 as opposed to a target of 725), but now it has to deal with the 20% buffer and the major appeals indicator. SSDC wonders why Govt is happy to punish a rural LPA to such a degree when it is managing to deliver over 80% of its annual target?


Quality/Designation Measure (1) do you ‘get’ it?

Last year the government got serious about the ‘Quality’ of decision making as part of the Designation regime. They are still mulling over whether to designate any councils, and, while the jury is out for last year, the regime continues and we’ve already reached the end of the two-year assessment period (April 2016 – March 2018) for this year’s round.

I’m regularly asked how the performance calculation works – like most things to do with designation,  no one really bothers to understand it until they get in trouble and that’s usually too late. So, please read this previous blog on staying ahead of designation, and read on for a beter understanding of  the quality performance measure.

Quality of decision making – how is my council’s performance measured?

The ‘Quality’ performance criteria is the total number of appeals lost divided by the total number of applications decided (so it’s a percentage of overall decisions, NB not total number of appeals divided by lost appeals).

This is how it operates:

  1. The current period under assessment is 1st April 2016 to 31st March 2018.
  2. Within this period, MHCLG count up all of the applications decided during the assessment period, plus any appeals for non-determination during this period. This is one part of the sum; this is the ‘total number of applications’. MHCLG will wait until December 2018 before getting out their calculators – this allows a 9 month ‘lag’ for appeals to go through the process/system.
  3. The second part of the sum is the number of appeals made on those applications that were decided during the assessment period. The number of overturns relating to these appeals is then viewed as a percentage of all decisions made in the period. A mocked up example:
  • Total number of decisions made in designation period: 100 (all decided applications, and non determined applications that were appealed)
  • Appeals made on these decisions: 20 (appeals made and decided 9 months after 31st March 2018 – the ‘lag’ period)
  • Appeals overturned: 11 (out of the 20)
  • 11/100 expressed as a %age – designation performance 11%. This is above the 10% performance threshold so you’d be in trouble.

The number of appeals made/allowed doesn’t really come into the equation – it is the number overturned as a percentage of the overall number of decisions.

How to manage quality performance

Because of this 9 month time lag, you need to start looking NOW at what might happen come December 2018 (when CLG do their sums). Here’s what to do:

  • You know how many majors* you’ve decided in the designation assessment period (ref. your PS1/2 returns)
  • You know how many cases you’ve refused so you should have an idea which of these refusals are likely to be appealed (and if so which ones you are confident of winning)
  • You also know current appeals going through and should have a feel for whether they are likely to be overturned or not.
  • By putting all of these things together you should have a feel for what your risk is come December 2018.

In many ways it’s already too late to effect performance this year, BUT ITS NOT TOO LATE to understand where you’ll end up. If you are in trouble, government will expect you to have a good response prepared about why performance looks like it does and what measures you’ve put in place to address things – the sooner the better. MHCLG fund PAS to support councils in trouble so get in touch with me (martin.hutchings@local.gov.uk) if you have concerns and we can assess the risk and begin helping you to get a strong case together should the worst happen. Even if you are ok this time, it’s not too late to start preparing for the 2017 – 2019 assessment period using the approach outlined above.

*The quality indicator works the same for majors and non majors – but no one gets close on non majors because of the massive numbers of decisions.

Designation – get ahead and stay ahead

Don’t get caught out by designation – make the ‘PAS designation speed and quality crystal balls’ a permanent part of your performance management system. Get ahead by understanding on a quarter-by-quarter basis how your performance (e.g. speed of issuing decisions, quality of decision making) stacks up against the government’s performance measures. In December for the first time councils will be put on notice of designation for poor quality decision making – the two year period being assessed for this has already passed (April 2015-March 2017) so don’t wait until December; use our crystal ball to assess if you are at risk NOW.

PAS designation speed and quality crystal balls can be found on the knowledgehub here.

Published statistics are too old to be useful
Relying on the government’s published statistics only help you look backwards, are at least 3 months old when published, and, because they are look back over a rolling 2 year period, they don’t really help you understand how well you are performing within the period that you will finally be judged on. This means that for many councils not paying attention, it is already too late when they find out that they are under or close to the government’s designation thresholds.

Manage performance in ‘real time’
The PAS designation crystal ball allows you to measure your performance in as close to real time as you care to feed it your most up to date performance data. It helps show at any given time how much cushion you have / gap you need to make up between your performance and the designation thresholds.

We are encouraging ALL councils to use the crystal balls as part of their performance management framework – many councils get caught in the designation process because poor performance ‘creeps up’ and, because the reporting period is over 2 years, just a couple of poor quarters can really drag overall performance down and for some councils it leaves them little time to recover.

PAS focus
PAS uses the crystal balls on a national scale to keep an eye on how councils are performing and offering  improvement support. Our resources for doing this are finite and we can only ever get to those councils whose performance is dropping sharply and noticeably.

So, get ahead, use the crystal balls and tackle poor performance before it takes hold. Visit the khub download the toolkit and let us know how  useful you find them.


2020 Vision: Re-Imagining the Planning Service

Nostalgic for 2020

I have been reading an article about how the clever re-packaging of nostalgia is key to the success of popular TV shows like Strictly and Bake-Off. These shows provide entertainment that feels modern and at the same time, familiar and safe. The article asks whether this re-packaging of the safe and familiar is just a retreat from a frightening future?

It got me thinking about the financial future for local government; you know the one that’s just 3 years’ away; the one where services will be expected to pay for themselves, no longer propped up by subsidies like the Revenue Support Grant?

Will the positive noises we are finally hearing from a government waking up (the private sector have joined the chorus) to the resourcing crisis, and the mooted increase in fees, distract us from this much more frightening (not-so-far-away-it’s-imminent) resourcing future? In the short term an increase in fees may take a bit of the pressure off, plug an existing gap perhaps, but it won’t, on its own, come anywhere near being enough to meet the 2020 funding challenge. How are planning services preparing?

Minding the (funding) gap

The size of the challenge will be different for different places. Take a look at this picture produced using our new ‘Productivity & Resourcing Review’. It represents the funding gap between application fee income and the costs of delivering the service. This is a group of councils working together to imagine/design what a regional planning offer might look like. It shows the stark reality for some councils of the funding gap that has to be bridged between now and 2020.


Each horizontal bar represents a council. The black dots on the graphic represent the income received from fees. The further to the right your black dot is of the coloured column (representing the cost of the different types of work the planning service does), the less gap there is to bridge.

Productivity & Resources
Councils need to start planning now for how they are going to bridge the gap. How many know what their gap looks like or how big it is? Without having done that piece of work, it’s difficult to even start. For many in this group of councils the challenge may be difficult because of the size of the gap, but they are ahead of the game using PAS’s Productivity & Resource Review to understand where the biggest holes are and the potential threats and opportunities that lie ahead. I fear many will wait too long to do this and then realise that time has run out to do anything meaningful.

There’s competition too!

Councils being allowed to set their own planning fees would close the funding gap more quickly, and it will be an option in some guise for councils going head-to-head with alternative providers in the pilot areas (when they eventually start). The alternative provider agenda may be slower in coming that first thought but it isn’t going away. 41 per cent of the planning consultancies in the recent PlanningResource survey expressed an interest in becoming a provider and 43 per cent (the same lot?) felt that councils setting their own planning fees was a bad idea.

…and they’ll be hungry

Competition will begin with just smaller applications and some places may not, in the long-run, mind losing some of that work to the private sector. Many councils though are beginning to think about what operating in a competitive market will mean for their income when the inevitable happens and the competition moves into the major applications market and comes calling for its crown jewels. Here’s another picture for the same set of councils mentioned earlier and shows how much of their overall income comes from fees for majors.


For some of these councils fee income for majors is approaching or is over half of total fee income. Councils that are alive to this are beginning to look NOW at developing a competitive offer to customers on major applications so that they are ready to compete in the most lucrative planning applications market.

Fear comes from lack of control

Like most things that frighten us, it is the extent of control we have over a situation that plays a big part. Take devolution for example (go on, take it, please). For the pro-devolution areas no one really knows what will it will actually mean to deliver a planning service once you have control of finances, and for those rejecting the idea, what is the devolved alternative? I was struck by something that the LGA’s own Lord Porter said at our staff conference a week or so back – he is of the firm belief that those areas not embracing the devolution deals now are likely to miss the boat forever.

I am not banging the drum for devolution or any other form of self-determination or financing model for local government. What I and PAS are doing is listening to and working with the councils that are already and actively preparing to exert some control over an uncertain future with no outside financial support.

A theme deserving serious attention

So, what’s to be done? The PAS Conference in March 2017 will be dedicated to helping planning services navigate a way through a currently uncertain present (we *should* have a White Paper by then) and figuring out how to make the journey to and beyond 2020 and survive.

I’m unofficially at the moment calling our conference ‘re-imagining the planning service of the future’. We’ll have, of course, DCLG along to discuss first-hand the implications of a fresh White Paper, and the opportunity to hear from, debate and challenge a stellar bunch of Chief Execs, planners, councillors and private sector colleagues that are already thinking about how to change and re-invent planning to meet the challenges up to and beyond 2020. Book on and join us here.

Ombudsman the bogeyman?

Ombudsman cases: does the risk warrant the reaction?

We’re starting another round of support for councils struggling to process applications quickly enough. A lot of our support helps councils make their processes slicker. One of the most common things to slow a process down is having lots of checks and hand-offs built into it.  These build time and cost into the process and, counter-intuitively, often make it more vulnerable to error (the next person will pick up anything I miss).

Many hand-offs and checks are built-in after an error, omission or failure-to-do-something resulted in an ‘Ombudsman Case’ (usually a few years ago). The checks and hand-offs are normally applied ‘across the board’, with little regard for the type/variety of work in the system and therefore no real understanding of the risk that an ‘Ombudsman Case’ really represents.

How big is the risk?

So, does the time and cost of the checks and hand-offs justify the risk/probability of a case ending up in front of the ombudsman? I did a 5 minute bit of research. You can search the Local Government Ombudsman website so I looked for cases that involved ‘planning applications’ over a 2 year period (April 2014 – April 2016). The number was about 2,400 cases. If you consider that councils process around 600,000 planning applications a year then my Ombudsman cases represent about 0.6% of applications.

A colleague recently worked out that you can save around 2 days of time if you manage to shave 1 minute off of the processing time of every thousand applications you handle. Consider how many minutes (hours, days) are taken up by unnecessary checking, hand-offs, and cases sitting in the backs of queues. So if every council in England saved itself a minute by eliminating a hand-off the sector would buy itself around 3 years’ worth of extra time to deal with planning applications.

Once bitten thrice shy?

I understand why checks are introduced – no one wants the expense and bad publicity of an Ombudsman case. But does the risk really justify the approaches taken by some councils? I know of at least one council that checks that the right consultees have been consulted at least 3 times during the processing of an application.

Now you may say that it is because of the checks and hand-offs that the ombudsman cases are so low. But even if every ombudsman case was a planning case that would still only amount to 20,000 (more crude research) a year – a mere 3% of total planning cases processed.

My research was quick and crude and a bit of idle fun (I am sure someone closer to the subject than me will challenge the numbers), but I hope it will help all of us feel a bit more comfortable about abandoning a lot of the unnecessary checks and hand-offs we’ve managed to strangle our planning processes with.

Simple principles for good planning

I recently ran a session at a Planning Resource seminar and was asked to pay particular attention to innovation, shared services and outsourcing as ways of managing resources better.

Done properly, innovation of this sort is certainly the future for planning, but it’s a medium term game at best. For my session I wanted to focus on the ‘bread and butter’ challenges managers face each morning when they sit at their desks like processing more applications with fewer staff, backlogs, the ‘up-to-date-ness’ of the local plan, and the relentless assault of legislation changes etc.

There are many opportunities for quick improvement and better use of resources that exist now, in our day-to-day work and are being missed simply because we are too busy doing what we do, instead of asking ourselves ‘why’ we do it? Most councils are addressing the resourcing challenge by using tools to stay out of trouble (e.g. extensions of time) and looking to pass more cost on to customers (e.g. pre-app, PPAs, paid-for appointments). Fewer, though, are thinking differently about why they do what they do.  

Friend of PAS and ex-Hastings planning manager, Raymond Crawford, while out-and-about helping councils get better, has been asking the ‘why?’ question and has come up with some ‘key principles’ for managing a DM service. PAS liked them so much we took the same idea and produced something similar for plan making; ‘key principles for managing the Local Plan’.

It’s all about perspective

For me, what Ray has hit upon are some fundamental truths about how councils ‘do planning’ that are often ignored. This leads to a loss of perspective, creates unnecessary complication and ultimately hampers improvement and progress. Examples include: treating all work as equal; checking/duplicating everything so as to avoid ‘that complaint we got once back in 1986’, or simply pinning our hopes on ‘the new IT system’ (again first promised back in 1986).

A shift in thinking

We all roll our eyes when we hear someone answer: ‘because that’s how we’ve always done it’, but it’s us managers that have created the systems and ways of working that trigger this response. The ‘key principles’ are NOT about how to do things – they are about taking a step back, asking ‘why?’, stating a few home truths and stimulating useful conversations.

Ray’s principles help challenge how we think – by his own admission they are nothing new, but there is something about seeing things we already know written down and presented by someone else that can create a shift in our thinking (sometimes it’s as simple as realising ‘phew, it’s not just me that thinks like this!‘). Here’s a quick overview of the principles and some of my own thoughts.

Development Management – start with variety, make risk your friend, and then stop doing things.

It is variety that makes planning wonderful. The variety in the work is the opportunity to consider different ways of working. Why do we have to follow the same rules and procedures for simple and complex cases? Why don’t we take more ‘managed risks’? Why do we hold work up with so many hand-offs and checks? Ray argues that allowing work to ‘flow’ is at least as important as having enough bums on seats, and worked out that for every minute you save, for every 1,000 applications, you gain 2 days per annum. Proof that small changes and improvements do matter.

Plan Making – start with purpose, prepare for risk and challenge, get political cover, and move as swiftly as possible

Plan making is a serious investment of time and money so it is sensible to routinely pause, reflect, listen and think. Have a clear purpose – plan making is a complex enough business, but without a clear purpose for what you are doing (again, begin with ‘why?’ not ‘how?’), the focus of the process easily turns into an endless chase to satisfy a list of regulations, rather than satisfying the aims of the plan. Plan-making is a political not a technical process; understand the different roles occupied by planners and councillors and get political ‘cover’. Risk and challenge are facts of life and risk increases in line with the time taken to make the plan. My colleague Adam Dodgshon put it nicely:

“be confident in your evidence, if it’s the right evidence to support your plan, it’s the right evidence to defend a challenge”.  Adam Dodsghon, PAS.

Can we keep getting better?

It is true that planning services have stripped themselves back to the bone and reviewed themselves to death in the last few years. But the resourcing picture is only going one way and that is why we have to keep challenging ourselves to think differently about our everyday ways of working. Yes there are rules and procedures, but how many are helpful and how many are historical? What are the practical ways that we can achieve more by thinking differently about the things we’ve done for years?

What we should always be ready for are the opportunities to make sure our planning service is as slick as it can be and customers like it.

The Government is thinking differently; the introduction of alternative providers is not just a shot across the boughs, but a clear signal of where planning is heading. Too often, planning is a ‘done to’ service, reacting and therefore usually on the back foot. We need to start thinking differently and yes, shared services and outsourcing may be the future, but not all of us are ready for that. What we should always be ready for are the opportunities to make sure our planning service is as slick as it can be and customers like it.

Keep an eye on the ‘big’ changes

By the way, I didn’t ignore the innovative stuff in my session. I asked someone that knows a lot about making shared services work to do that bit – Rachel Almond, Planning Service Manager of the West Suffolk Partnership (Forest Heath / St Edmundsbury). Anyone thinking of going down that route should speak to her.

Contact martin.hutchings@local.gov.uk if you have any comments or for more information.

It’s ok to break the rules – re-thinking validation

If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun. Katharine Hepburn

I’m currently doing a really enjoyable piece of work helping a planning service’s validation team clear a growing work backlog by getting them to think differently about the ‘rules’. The service has over 2 weeks of work backed up. This may not sound like a disaster, but they’re a few staff down and feeling some heat from the government on their performance stats, so things feel a bit tense. They want a clean run at things. Here’s how they’re going about the work:

  1. Getting the right people in the room

The right people = those that do the job. Managers think it’s their job to come up with solutions to problems but because of all the other things they need to worry about, they normally end up getting in the way. The team know what works and what is bonkers about their job. To get the best ideas, managers should give the people doing the work the room to think and permission to challenge the rules.

00 - PIC  - west suffolk mh + validation march 2016The people doing the job are the best people to solve the problems

  1. Putting things in perspective

When under pressure, it’s easy to focus on the size of the problem (how are we ever going to clear 126 cases?) and remember the most difficult case you’ve ever worked on and assume that every case in the pile will be like that. So, the team breathed in deeply and reminded themselves: 1) variety is the norm in a planning case load; not every case in the pile will require the same amount of work; 2) 70-80% of the cases will be minor or householder applications (less work, lower risk); 3) the council is going to approve about 95% of the cases anyway.

  1. Creative problem solving

The team are the experts and know precisely how they’d do things differently (if it was up to them). So they asked themselves: ‘if we could guarantee that the planners won’t moan and our boss will take responsibility for anything that goes wrong, what shall we change, do differently, or stop doing that will help clear the backlog?’ After some initial shuffling in the seats, and a few repeated: ‘…what? It’s really up to us…?’ and, ‘you’ll clear it with the planners…?’, here’s what the team have come up with, they nicely titled it: “What’s the worst thing that could happen???!!!”

Request 1: Forget the local validation list; go with National requirements only. If a case satisfies National validation requirements but falls foul of the council’s local requirements, validate it.

Request 2: Householder applications without biodiversity/ecology/heritage statements/reports. Validate the application and let the planners decide if the study is really necessary. How many cases is this really going to affect?

Request 3: Up to date contaminated land studies. Worry about whether the application has one, rather than if it is out of date. Once again let the planners decide the best course of action.

Request 4: Validate applications with no fee. ‘Red flag’ the case so no decision is made until the fee is paid. This was the only idea that really divided people, and is still being discussed. On the one hand, the fee problem may be due to the payments system, so if we know the agent then give them the benefit of the doubt – we’ll get our money. On the other hand, why should we work on a case with no fee, when others have managed to get the payment to us? An interesting and useful debate about a real issue in planning (although I have to say, in the 21st Century, I can’t believe this payment matching thing is still an issue).

Request 5: Appeals / other work (that falls to the validation team). Could the two former team members that had recently be made up to Planning Assistants help for a short period? They know the job and can get stuck in straight away.

Request 6: Relax on the descriptions of development. In this place the registered description of the development is important to get right because it is pulled through to other reports and to the decision notice. At the moment, a case can go back and forth to the planners if the description isn’t right. The team, while acknowledging that they had to get better at this, asked if the planners could relax on this for a short period.

Request 7 (my personal favourite) “Hardly any interruptions” …for 8 days? The validation team are the go-to people for anything from ‘there’s no paper in the photocopier’ to ‘the printer won’t work’. None of it their job but they happily help out. For a short period of time they asked their colleagues to sort these things out themselves.

At a meeting on the same day, these requests were put to the planners and managers. The validation team attended (it was important that they witnessed their ideas being discussed and the reactions). The new rules would only apply for a short period, and only to the backlogged cases. Each point was debated and the risks discussed. Each sticking point was quickly overcome using the perspective points made above and asking two simple questions:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • How many times in this batch of 126 applications might the worst thing happen?

It only takes half a day

Each request has been agreed (although the one about fees is, I think, still being debated). In half a day the validation team had the solution to the problem, the sanction of the planners, and the protection of their managers. Not a bad half day’s work. They’ve started on the backlogged cases and have given themselves 8 days to clear the work. They are currently ahead of schedule.

3 key learning points from this work:

  • Taking a ‘managed risk’ approach is vital to the smooth flow of any process that has as much variety in it as the planning applications process.
  • Not everything that’s missing is a show stopper. Keep cases flowing through the process wherever possible.
  • It is vital that those that do the work are allowed the space to think up their own solutions to problems, and have the backing and protection of managers to see things through. This leads to the best solutions, is good for morale and leads to ownership and commitment.

PAS improvement practice

This is a simple example of work we’ve been doing over the last 6 weeks at 10 councils focused on making a real difference in a short space of time. The PAS approach is rooted in the DM Challenge toolkit, and is about results – not spending 3 months doing a project, leaving weeks and weeks between sessions so that staff forget what it was they’re supposed to be doing, and then leaving behind a report. The work is condensed into 3 days over a fortnight. Our remit is; find out what the main problems are and why they are happening (day 1), help staff come up with the solutions (day 2), start implementing change (day 3).

The above example is just one part of a host of interventions and improvements identified at the council over the 3 days on site.

Will ‘new’ become ‘normal’?

It’s my suspicion that when the team have cleared the backlog, and review what has happened, that a few of the ‘new’ rules may become the ‘normal’ rules. I’ll be going back to get their reflections and update this blog then.

What do you think? Let me know, or if you want to know more about this work, contact me: martin.hutchings@local.gov.uk